What Do Women Want – Daniel Bergner

When I first heard about this book and saw that it was written by someone named Daniel I jumped straight into my grrrrrrrl!!! pants ready to rant and rave at this Daniel character, or at least his book.  I was ‘madly’ incensed….right up to the  point that I started researching the book (pre-publication) and what I found made me take my wallet out and pre-order it on Amazon.

(Fair warning – though I don’t think I am saying anything here that is offensive, if you would prefer not to read something that refers to sex or human genitalia read no further)

What Do Women Want : Adventures in the Science of Female Desire” brings together mountains of research by (mostly female) scientists and stories that represent the hundreds of women Bergner spoke with to create a book that completely re-sets the stage for how we talk about women and sex.

The study that I read that made me order the book referred to Meredith Chivers work at Queen’s University.  Chivers took male and female participants, gave them a device to click with their thumb when they felt ‘turned on’, placed a device on/in their genitalia to measure arousal and then showed them a variety of basic pornographic material.  She discovered that while there was a direct correlation between what men said was arousing (mentally through the thumb click), and the blood flow to their genitals, women were generally not so straightforward. Women were turned on by everything according to what the plethysmograph (the internal monitor) but their thumbs indicated minimal arousal and only when it came to men together with women. (or in the case of lesbians women with women.

Are we disconnected? Are the mind and body engaged differently?  Do societal mores influence us so deeply? I wanted to know.

When I read “Breasts : A Natural and Unnatural History” I was deeply struck by how the basis for science had been so male oriented.  The idea that the reasons women have ‘present’ breasts throughout their adult life (as opposed to breasts that only become engorged during breastfeeding as in all other mammals) was understood to be because ‘boobies made men happy’. (On a tangent check out Amanda Palmer’s video to the Daily Mail about her breast and their coverage of it)

It’s understandable we understand the world through our own prisms and as Dr. Wallen explains :

“When he thought about the way science had somehow kept itself oblivious to female monkey lust for so long, Wallen blamed not only preconceptions but the sex act itself.  When you look at the sexual interaction., it’s easy to see what the male is doing; he’s thrusting.  It takes really focusing o the entire interaction to see all that the female is doing – and once you truly see it, you can never overlook it again.” (45)

But there are things too that I could not understand at all.  I can’t blame scientists for understanding the world one way but I got a little upset when I realized that there were more than oversights.

“As we watched, Pfaus mentioned the anatomical oversights that had squelched our understanding of the clitoris – rat and human- until a decade before.  The organ has sizable extensions, lying internally in the shape of bulbs and wings.  These are positioned, in part, just behind the front wall of the vagina,.  Yet these nerve-rich formations had gone mostly unnoted by modern anatomists, who either left them undrawn or gave them no import” (p57)

When you are drawing an anatomical picture…you draw what you see not what you deem important.  Rats are such crazed sexual creatures a reference to them even came up in another book I’m reading  “Daily Rituals  : How Artists Work”.  The author Patricial Highsith once remarked that she was “rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms” (p10)

In the end he admits that there is a lot more work to do, we are a very long distance from understanding all of the levels of female desire but this book topples a lot of the old stereotypes so that we might begin the conversation again, more honestly.


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